Copiah Countians shaped the blues
Even though the Mississippi is popularly considered the birthplace of the blues, musicians from across the state, including Copiah County, contributed to its development and international recognition. Robert Johnson of Hazlehurst, Tommy Johnson (no relation) of Crystal Springs and Houston Stackhouse of Wesson were three well-known blues artists from the county.
Robert Johnson actually spent most of his short life (1911-1938) in the Delta, recording only 29 tracks, but going down in history as the “Grandfather of Rock and Roll” with his unique style. He was the master of the guitar, so great that rumor had it that he had made a pact and sold his soul to the devil. The 1986 film Crossroads was based on his career. The Blue’s Foundation’s Hall of Fame inducted him in 1986, and three markers on the Mississippi Blues Trail honor him across the state. The Robert Johnson Museum is in Crystal Springs, although he is buried at Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church in Greenwood.
Stackhouse was born Houston Goff at Wesson in 1910 and assumed his stepfather’s surname when he moved to Crystal Spring in 1925. Varied local musicians, including his Uncles Luther and Charlie Williams, Lonnie Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, Tommy Johnson and his brothers Mage and Clarence influenced him. He settled into playing the guitar after learning the violin , harmonica and mandolin; was one of the earliest blues guitarists to perform on live radio broadcasts in the Delta and taught the instrument to such renowned blues musicians as Robert Nighthawk, Jimmy Rogers and Sammy Lawhorn. His career encompassed early work with Robert Johnson, Tommy Johnson and his brothers and dozens of other Copiah County musicians; and continuing work in the industry during the 1940s around Helena, Arkansas, and in Memphis in the 1970s. When he returned to Crystal Springs in the late 1970s, he curtailed his work, although he performed in the first two Mississippi Delta Blues Festivals before his death in 1980. A Mississippi Blues Trail marker at the Wesson Old School Community Center honors him.
A student of his uncle and brothers, who played instruments, in a musical family, Tommy Johnson sang about what he knew in a raw, raspy voice backed up by a driving guitar. A supreme vocalist of early Delta Blues, he could jump from a falsetto to a growl. His personalized lyrics and striking blues compositions incorporated fragments of African American folk poetry and fables. The movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? portrayed Johnson, with two scenes shot in Copiah County. In the movie, three escaped convicts ask him why he is at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere, and he reveals he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play the guitar – a legend popularly, but erroneously ascribed to Robert Johnson first told by his brother LaDell in his biography. He recorded only 14 titles between 1928 and 1930, and died of a heart attack in 1956. He is buried in the Copiah County Warm Springs Cemetery.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Throughout the 2023 Copiah County Bicentennial year, Wesson News will feature sketches of past and present visual artists, musicians, authors and photographers who are natives of the county. They will be excerpted from Tricia Nelson’s reporting in A Shared History: Copiah County, Mississippi 1823-2023 edited and compiled by Paul C. Cartwright and available through Cartwright for $25 plus $5 for shipping at 3 Waverly Circle, Hattiesburg, MS 39402. Nelson is a Crystal Springs writer who contributes to the Copiah County Monitor.